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Main Spotlight: Supporting Spanish-Speaking Businesses in Washington, D.C.

September 23, 2020 | Main Spotlight: ¿Cómo se dice “Free Money?”: Supporting Spanish-Speaking Businesses in Washington, D.C. | By: Carolina Buitrago, Program Director, Columbia Heights - Mount Pleasant Main Streets, District Bridges | 
District Bridges helped a local restaurant create a streatery to increase their outdoor dining capacity. Photo credit: Haydee Vanegas, Owner of Haydee’s

This piece is part of a Main Street America blog series celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month.

One of the biggest barriers for businesses in adapting to new conditions is accessing capital to help them develop new business capacities or adjust their product mix. Minority-owned businesses face additional challenges when it comes to accessing capital.

To address this need, District Bridges partnered with the D.C. Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs (MOLA), to develop the Latino Small Business Capital Access Program (CAP), which aims to advise and support Spanish-speaking businesses in accessing the capital needed to support their business development goals. Developed in October 2019, CAP works with businesses no matter where they are in the business development process.

District Bridges developed three business categories to guide their efforts in CAP, based off the four criteria that are necessary for a capital project to be successful. Those criteria are the business must have a clearly defined project to fund, the necessary financial and organizational information, the capacity or plan to complete the project to be funded, and have identified funds to pursue.

Based off these criteria, CAP businesses fall into one of the three categories below:

  1. Capital Ready: these businesses have achieved all four areas and are working with District Bridges to pursue identified funds.
  2. Capital Planning: these businesses may have two or three of the four criteria and are working with District Bridges to address the missing criteria.
  3. Business Development: these businesses have the goal to access capital but need support in achieving the criteria first.

Once COVID-19 hit, we at District Bridges updated our work plan to focus on supporting Latino businesses with access to capital through grant applications and anything they might need to remain open during the pandemic. Keep reading to find how the Columbia Heights | Mount Pleasant Main Street program, managed by District Bridges, supports Spanish-speaking small business owners through CAP.

COVID Assistance through the Capital Access Program

Grant Application Assistance
“Grant,” or, “subvención” is a tricky word in Spanish. The idea of this being “a gift” or “free money” without having to pay it back or accrue any interest can sound hard to believe for some minority-owned businesses who might not be used to this type of assistance in their home countries.

During the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Washington, D.C. Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) put out an application for recovery microgrants for businesses in the District. District Bridges was able to complete the application for seven Spanish-speaking businesses in Columbia Heights | Mount Pleasant (CHMP) Main Street. By being able to communicate with these businesses in their native language, we were able to explain all the requirements of the application and express the concept of “subvención” - the gift of financial assistance.

After working with the seven Spanish-speaking businesses along the CHMP Main Street, we secured $42,599 in grants for them to use toward their rent, salaries, utilities, or whatever they needed. We also supported other Spanish-speaking businesses with the application process, and over $81,000 was leveraged amongst Spanish speaking businesses.

Mount_Pleasant_1.jpgOutdoor Dining
In addition to supporting Spanish-speaking businesses with grant applications, we have found other ways to assist businesses in adapting to survive through COVID-19. We helped a local restaurant apply to one of the city’s outdoor dining programs and were able to create a streatery in front of Haydee’s, a Latino restaurant that has been in operation for over 20 years in Mount Pleasant. We worked with the D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT), the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) and other city agencies to convert a bus pad/bus stop into an outdoor seating area for this restaurant, turning five parking spaces into an area for six tables and seating for up to 36 people, set up to follow social distance guidelines. They are now able to offer outdoor seating and were able to rehire some of their employees.

Retail Store Website
El West is a unique retail shop in Mount Pleasant that has been in the neighborhood for over 25 years. This is a very special store, as it sells unique products that can’t be found anywhere else in the city. It specializes in “Western” merchandise, which is defined as “West US.” Cowboy hats, western boots, belts, buckles and a variety of unique Western products can be found there.

The owner, who is originally from El Salvador, didn’t have a website for her business and wasn’t sure if she would be able to make it through COVID-19. We talked about the importance of being able to sell online and we hired a local high school senior who has won website development awards to work on this website during her summer. She is currently completing El West’s website. Soon, El West will be able to sell online and even expand their geographical reach as they will be able to mail merchandise outside of D.C.

Outreach During COVID-19
Not all of our businesses have emails or are up-to-date in the digital world. During COVID-19, there were a few important announcements and information that we wanted to ensure got delivered to every single business in the Main Street corridor. But how does one do outreach during a pandemic?

We created a flyer in English and Spanish and had volunteers help us distribute them around the district. We used gloves and masks and taped the flyers outside of every business along our corridor, ensuring everyone had the information. Although many of the minority-owned business owners are bilingual, being able to communicate and provide information in their native language makes a significant difference in relationship-building. People feel more comfortable and confident when they receive and understand the information in their language.

Looking Towards the Future

We are expecting a second round of grants to come out soon, and we anticipate that with the help of volunteers from our communities who speak other languages, we will be able to support many minority-owned businesses complete the grant application and access additional capital.

As the pandemic continues and we are headed into winter, District Bridges will be supporting small businesses to find creative ways to adapt and make it through the cold weather. The City is working on some grants and guidelines for heated spaces for outdoor dining and District Bridges will be looking at the possibility of implementing outdoor markets to support retailers, as well. Many of our retailers in Mount Pleasant are Latino-owned businesses who offer great products from their countries (mostly El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras), which are great gifts for the holiday season. 

About the Author

After many years of moving around in the US and internationally, Carolina Buitrago moved to Washington D.C. and has been at District Bridges since November of 2018 as the program director for the Columbia Heights | Mount Pleasant Main Streets Program. She was born and raised in Colombia and one of her program objectives is focusing on providing assistance in Spanish to the Spanish-speaking businesses in two of the most diverse neighborhoods in D.C.

She holds a Masters in International Development and Social Change from Clark University and a BA in Anthropology from the University of South Florida.